Krukowski has so much to offer, and Ways of Hearing delivers a sound bite, so to speak, in his larger composition.
Damon Krukowski knows something about sound. His musical work, particularly in Galaxie 500, found new ways to use sound-as-sound to generate a distinctive kind of music. He knows a little something about writing, too, as a poet, editor, and essayist. The presence new book Ways of Hearing makes sense, its examination of the experience of sound in listening in the digital era an apt topic for someone whose own career made the transition from analog to digital and has included much thinking on the subject. The concise little book overflows with insight, yet ends up feeling more like an appetizer than a main course.
The set-up for the book might be part of the problem. Ways of Hearing adapts a podcast series of the same name, which was itself born out of Krukowski’s acclaimed previous book The New Analog. As such, it reads a little like CliffsNotes and a little like a screenplay. It is to his thought what a good podcast is to conversation; valuable and exciting, but still only a portion of a full offering.
The book also suffers from its explicit comparison to John Berger’s classic Ways of Seeing, itself a written text that sprang from a BBC television series. Berger’s work, with its focus on visual art, translated more naturally to the page, even if the image-only essays feel a little dated 45 years later. Krukowski’s speech takes to the page well, but the inscription of the podcast’s sound effects works only some of the time. For a text dealing with technology, it might have made more sense to find new ways to incorporate the aural points, in order to turn the work into something that feels less like a transcription.
Complaints about format shouldn’t hinder exploring Krukowski’s wonderful thinking. He writes as a mixture of musician, engineer, philosopher, and scientist, and both the breadth and the detail of his thought can be captivating. In his meditation on love (each chapter follows a topic like “Money” or “Time”), Krukowski moves from Frank Sinatra’s microphone technique to the lack of sound range on digital phone transmission while exploring how digital sound affects our personal interactions.
On the topic of space, he covers street noise, earbuds, headphones, and the acoustics of music halls all without losing the thread. His work on time offers some highlights, from Joe Castiglione calling a baseball game to the precision of digital time. Each example he works through brings a fuller understanding of how the move to digital effects our experience of time, as well as the work done in the studio or as a listener. Krukowski and his guests have more insights that can possibly fit in the book.
And there’s the problem. The book reads like a product of its context – and perhaps both the deep, explicit intertextuality and the design of the book itself offer fodder for postmodern reflection – but its hard not to translate that into feeling like going to the original podcast or even to The New Analog might be more rewarding. As a series of snapshots, Ways of Hearing nails it; it’s the sort of book that could inspire some unexpecting future sound engineers. But the way it hints at so much more makes the snack-sized bites taste just a little frustrating. Krukowski has so much to offer, and Ways of Hearing delivers a sound bite, so to speak, in his larger composition.